When Children Won't Apologize - Does that Mean They Don't Feel Remorse?
By Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D.
parents are realizing that their children don’t want to say they’re
sorry when they’ve done something they shouldn’t have. Some children go
to great lengths to avoid apologizing, and even accept consequences
instead. When children refuse to apologize, the adults in their lives
worry that they don’t feel remorse. Then we get more anxious. Does he
have no conscience or empathy? Or worse: Is he a sociopath? Will he
become a criminal? We wonder what to do.
are so many children refusing to apologize? Children used to be taught
from the earliest ages to always say “I’m sorry” for anything they
shouldn’t have done – accidental or deliberate. It was as
automatic as the way we still teach “please” and “thank you.” Then a
theory took hold discouraging adults from insisting that a child say
“I’m sorry” if she really isn’t. An insincere
apology, this theory went, is of no real value. For the past 10 to 15
years, this view has been taught to young children by teachers and
parents. Many children grew up with that belief system. and never
developed what should be an automatic habit of saying “I’m sorry.”
Instead, these children view apologizing as some sort of horrible
admission of guilt, a surrender or humiliation, and refuse to do it.
What was supposed to happen, according to the theory, was that as
children got old enough to understand their role in “hurting” someone,
they would sincerely feel sorry and start
apologizing. That hasn’t happened. This unwillingness to automatically
apologize is causing many parents and teachers to fear that these
children don’t truly feel sorry and have no remorse.
Just as young children really learn to be truly appreciative many years
after they start saying “thank you,” very young children should be
taught to say “I’m sorry” – for emotional and physical hurts and
accidental and purposeful hurts. When young children learn to say
they’re sorry, after time they come to realize they shouldn’t have done
what they did, and they feel sincerely sorry and willing to accept blame. We want apologizing to be automatic, just like “please” and “thank you.”
If you see this problem in your children, here are some useful strategies:
By following these guidelines, we
can help ensure our children’s futures as caring members of society who
feel sincerely sorry and responsible for their actions.
Since most young children may not even be aware that they upset anyone
when they jumped on your back, or called you a big meany, or stepped on
another child’s block structure, it really doesn’t matter whether your
young child is sincerely sorry or not. We just want them to apologize.
The sooner we start, the more automatic this habit will be. With time,
sometimes years, people start to realize all the feelings and
perspectives involved and more fully understand their responsibility.
- When you do something you shouldn’t, make sure you
apologize, so your child sees how automatic it is. (Remember, most
people apologize to others many times in a typical day – it’s viewed as
basic considerate behavior.)
- Make sure you
are not overindulging your child by giving him too much say in the
family, or too many privileges or material things. Too much indulgence
creates children who are self-centered, have little empathy and are
reluctant to take responsibility for their actions, even actions that
are hurtful to others.
- If teachers and
others caring for your children don’t agree with this approach, explain
that it is your childrearing philosophy and why. They need to be
reminded that you make the ultimate decisions about your child,
and you need them to be consistent with your approach.
your child has learned that he doesn’t have to apologize and therefore
doesn’t believe he has to say he’s sorry, explain to him how he learned
that habit, how your view has changed, and why you now think
apologizing is an important courtesy. Help him explore how he feels
when he apologizes. Try to relate to his perspective so he knows that
you’re aware of how hard this will be.
your young child won’t apologize, set up some fun, lighthearted
practices with you and her practicing apologizing for all kinds of
things – including silly things, like apologizing to the table for
bumping into it.
- If your child is older and
doesn’t believe in apologizing, explain to him what a negative
impression people get of someone who won’t say he’s sorry. Tell him it
makes it seem like they don’t regret it and only care about themselves
– not the kind of person most people want to be around, or have their
children be with. Make sure he knows that people like others
better if they apologize when they harm someone. Lots of children don’t
Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D., author, has been a child/parent
psychologist and a specialist in childrearing and child development for more than 25 years. Her parenting psychology practice is
in Emerald Hills, California. She is also on the adjunct faculty in
pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Rothenberg
was the founder/director of the Child Rearing parenting program in Palo
Alto, California, and is the author of the award-winning books Mommy and Daddy are Always Supposed to Say Yes … Aren’t They?, Why Do I Have To?, I Like To Eat Treats, I Don't Want to Go to the Toilet, I Want To Make Friends and I'm Getting Ready For Kindergarten. These are all-in-one books with a story for preschoolers and a manual
for parents. Her new series is for elementary school childen and their parents. The first book is Why Can't I Be the Boss of Me? (2015). For more information about her books and to read her
articles, visit www.PerfectingParentingPress.com. To find out about her counseling practice and her speaker presentations, go to AnnyeRothenberg.com.